Nowadays the sound of Minnesota's liberal outer suburbs is music to Republican ears

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The Independent US

Jake Hilton is more upset by this election than he realises. Sitting at a window table inside the Avant Garden coffee shop on Main Street in Anoka, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi about 25 miles from Minneapolis, he recalls a recent dream. The Republicans came into his house and tied him with ropes.

Jake Hilton is more upset by this election than he realises. Sitting at a window table inside the Avant Garden coffee shop on Main Street in Anoka, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi about 25 miles from Minneapolis, he recalls a recent dream. The Republicans came into his house and tied him with ropes.

This simple little nightmare, Jake, by the way, is seven years old and was with his mother, Heidi Hilton, ended happily. His parents, who are both devout Democrats, rushed in and set him free. If they could do the same for Minnesota in this election, they surely would.

Something new is happening in traditionally liberal Minnesota, a state that hasn't supported a Republican for President since Richard Nixon in 1972. The Democrats are losing ground and nowhere faster than in communities like Anoka. Welcome to the outer suburbs, or the 'exurbs' , ground that is especially fertile for George Bush.

No wonder Mr Bush was himself on Anoka's Main Street just two weeks ago, Jake saw the motorcade from school. Or that he was in Carver County, to the southeast of Minneapolis seven days later. Beyond the immediate suburbs of Minneapolis, which still remain largely Democrat, the fastest demographic growth is in these exurbs. And as they grow, so do the Republican majorities within them.

It is a new electoral dynamic that former Vice President Walter Mondale himself recognises. This was the only state he secured as Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1984. In his downtown office this week, he told the Independent: "As I look out of this window, I know that 60 to 70 per cent of the people will vote Democrat. But if I look three miles further, about the same percentage will go Republican and it's in so-called exurbia that there has been a particularly big change."

Anoka County, with its as-far-as-the-eye-can-see farmland, used to be at the heart of Minnesota's Democrat tradition. "There simply aren't so many hills for rich people to live on top of," writes humourist Garrison Keiller, who grew up here and conjured his 'Lake Wobegone Days' radio series from this soil, in his new book, 'Homegrown Democrat'. But nowadays, the farmland has been mostly eaten up. The roads are lined by neat strip malls, drive-thru pharmacies and brand-new subdivisions for prosperous commuters.

"Not only are the Republicans dominating in the exurbs, but these are the areas with the fastest population growth," comments Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. " The paving of Lake Wobegone is exactly what is propelling the Republican rise in this state."

Al Gore did prevail in Minnesota in 2000, but only by two percentage points and it might be tougher for Mr Kerry, who returns to campaign in Minneapolis tomorrow. " It's certainly going to be a real challenge for him to pull it off in Minnesota," concedes Professor Jacobs, who dares not predict which way the state will fall. "But I tell you this: if he doesn't win here, he won't win the White House."

The key for Senator Kerry here, as in all the other eight-odd swing states, will be turnout. Among those doing the legwork for him has been Heidi's husband, Scott Hilton. An auditor for the powerful Teamster's Union, he will be out of his office and knocking on doors of prospective Democrat voters across Anoka County every day between now and 2 November.

Turnout in Minnesota has always been higher than in other states. This time, experts predict, it could reach as high as 80 per cent , astonishing in a country that often sees half its potential voters stay at home. Predicting the impact of these get-out-the-vote drives is trickier than ever in Minnesota, however, because it is one of only a handful of states that allows citizens to register to vote on polling day itself.

"Republicans have been working it to the fare-the-well," acknowledges Mr Mondale. But the evidence so far suggests that the Democrats have been the more successful. A study by the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week showed that almost twice as many people have been signed up to register in traditionally Democrat areas than in Republican districts.

That she should even worry almost baffles Heidi Hilton, whose father is second-in-command at the Teamsters nationally. " It's very sad the direction it's going. I find it hard even to imagine that Minnesota could be a swing state. I honestly don't believe that these people can be really listening to the issues if they would only look at what's happened in this country in the last four years."

The people she is referring to might be just about everyone else who stops for a coffee in the Avant Garden during this lunchtime. Like Beth Battaglia, 39, a drug company representative who has volunteered for the Republican Party in this election for the first time. She is equally perplexed by Heidi.

"I find it very odd that our country, knowing its history over the last four years, would elect a president who would pull out of Iraq and send a message to other countries that when the going gets tough we just run away," she says, just as flatly. Iraq is one issue that gets her going. So is healthcare and taxes.

Ask Beth about Mr Kerry's plans to spend more government money extending healthcare to the uninsured and she almost scoffs. "I've worked hard for what I've got and I expect other people to stop their complaints and start to look after themselves. I mean it takes self-discipline. Get on a diet. They eat too much and they smoke too much." A compassionate Republican she apparently is not.

Back in downtown, Mr Mondale, who lost a Senate race here to Republican Norm Coleman two year ago, looks beyond Minnesota to the rest of the country and he is gloomy. Commenting on the newest polls showing Mr Bush with a new, if very slight, edge, he comments: "People are making up their minds. And it's cutting against us."